Immigration Judges as Naysayers: Some Say ‘No’ 99% of the Time

By David North on November 6, 2023

While one part of the immigration system is saying “no” to only 4.2 percent of those illegal aliens seeking to enter the U.S. through a new process run by the Biden administration, there are other parts of the system where about two-thirds of the applicants are rejected.

Today’s posting deals with perhaps the most significant of the relatively small naysaying parts of the system, that of the Justice Department’s corps of immigration judges. These judges, and I have been to scores of their sessions, hold at least hour-long “merits hearings” to decide whether or not to grant a specific request for asylum. There is always a lawyer representing ICE, often a lawyer for the alien, and often an interpreter, and all the proceedings are taped.

While two million or so aliens have been getting through the border with varying degrees of screening every year in the last couple of years, there were never more than 70,000 receiving immigration court decisions in any year this century (see figure below from Syracuse University’s TRAC program) with that number usually running between 30,000 and 40,000. In FY 2020, the percentage of denials was 71 percent, falling to 63 percent the following year, as the Biden administration’s new rules took effect.

Some nations of origin received, as you might guess, a smaller percentage of asylum grants than others, according to a report from the U.S. Justice Department. The leading nations getting either denials or “others” in the DOJ system were:

  • Philippines: 97 percent
  • Costa Rica: 96 percent
  • Cuba: 95 percent
  • Dominican Republic: 95 percent
  • Haiti: 95 percent

At the other end of the spectrum, applicants from these nations are the most likely to receive asylum grants:

  • Eritrea: 79 percent
  • Belarus: 75 percent
  • Ethiopia: 71 percent

Some years ago the most successful group of candidates were followers of the Baha’i religion from Iran. They got 100 percent or near to that approval rate; had they stayed in Iran they would have been killed.

While the TRAC System run by Syracuse University shows a relatively logical flow of decisions, year by year, it also shows a remarkable and hard-to-justify judge-by-judge (and court-by-court) variation in denial rates. A few judges are at or near 0 percent denial rates and larger groups of them deny cases at the 97 percent or more rate. Some comments on these differences follow the longish TRAC table seen below.

In the table above, TRAC shows the records of individual judges (those with 100 or more decisions) as little or big circles, sometimes overlapping. The heavy concentration of similar-thinking judges in big cities like New York and San Francisco (low rates of denials) and Atlanta and Dallas (high rates) must reflect something in addition to the differing populations being served. The judges may well be (perhaps unconsciously) influencing each other, and they all may be reflecting the views of the communities where they work.

In some cases, such as Jena, La., with its 99.5 percent denial rate, the court is dealing only with a detained population rather than the usual mix of detained and free applicants, and the higher rates are understandable. (Google a map of Jena and you will see “The Geo Group” noted; that’s a private, for-profit, detention center.) You do not wind up in a DHS facility for just swimming the Rio Grande for your first illegal entry to the U.S.; something else must be on the record.

I find the differences among the judges to be troublesome — those at or near the ends of the spectrum, both ways, must be making some errors — but I do not have a suggestion as to how to cope with it, given the independence of the judges.

But, for better or for worse, only a relatively tiny percentage of our incoming aliens are covered by that system.